Spread of English in the ROC


Discussions of the spread and development of English in both the Republic of China invariably begin from the founding of the state in 1911 situating the spread of English in the larger scope of state-controlled language planning. As a result, the spread and development of English in the ROC have come to be included among discussions of the standardization of Chinese pronunciation, the Romanization of Chinese script, and local language development. This work leaves the impression that English in the ROC has resulted from state schooling and language policy a larger historical analysis shows the opposite. The most effective English education has always been associated with private education, rather than public schooling. The clients of this private English-based education were drawn from the commercial elites of the treaty ports, especially Shanghai. The centralization of government under the KMT did not have a strong impact on private education until the KMT retreat to Taiwan in 1949. There, the KMT attempts to implement Mandarin as the national language effective extinguished English education. The rise of Taiwan’s position as an international manufacturing center created pressure for more effective English education. The conditions for the realization of this became a reality following the lifting of martial law in 1949. Nevertheless, public English education has continued to lag behind private English education which has remained the major source of effective English education.


By the founding of the ROC in 1911, effective English education teaching communicative language skills had already become deeply rooted in China. Christian missionaries had established a broad network of English-medium schools throughout the region. Chinese residents of the major cities had already taken notice of the commercial advantage that came from knowledge of English. With the collapse of the imperial order, English education in the Christian colleges began to take on an aspect unimagined during the previous years. There was now no shortage of students capable and willing to pay huge sums for the privilege of studying at the Christian colleges, such as St. John’s College and the Shanghai Anglo-Chinese College.

The number of actual Christian students attending these schools began to decline sharply, but enrollment rose dramatically. The tiny number in 1900 (164) increased more than 30 times over the next few decades. By 1925, the Christian college system totaled more than 3500 students studying at more than a dozen post-secondary institutions (Lutz 1971).

These schools gradually evolved into a complex institutional world separated from the schools of the Chinese-speaking world by an insurmountable language barrier. The English requirements for the Christian schools had become so demanding that few students not graduating from a Christian preparatory schools could expect to meet them. Indeed, in 1925, 80% of the students studying at Christian colleges had come from a Christian middle school (Lutz 1971).


The KMT unification of China and subsequent drive for domination had little effect on Christian schools aside from the competition from state schools that it created. Educational reforms begun in 1929 mandated minimum requirements for schools registered as colleges and universities. Compared with the resources of a stable, national government, the privately funded missionary schools could not hope to compete in terms of salaried and facilities. Even those colleges with the highest standard of education, such as Shantung Christian College, were substandard compared with the emerging state schools.

Since the vast majority of technical and scientific information was still available only in English, the national universities established under the Republic came also to demand some knowledge of English from their candidates. The entrance examination of the newly establish Communications University (Chiao Tung University) was originally written only in English. The pressure to educate English literate graduates for these universities was so great that students at the feeder schools of major state universities, such as Nankai Middle School or Nanyang Middle School, developed impressive standards. Nevertheless, students at Christian secondary schools and their colleges were consistently able to attain the highest standards of English fluency. So dramatic was this difference that some students began using Christian colleges as English language training schools to prepare themselves for the entrance examinations of national universities or overseas study.

One ominous sign for the future of education in the ROC was the KMT’s drive to unify the nation under state control. A series of campaigns during the 1930s created an ROC with a financial and commercial sector almost completely dominated by the KMT (Bergere 1986: Coble 1980). While education was always dominated by the KMT, perhaps as a form of appeasement to the USA and their Christian allies (Lamberton 1955), the Christian schools were able to operate with relatively little interference. Although English-medium schools were allowed operation, KMT-established schools, such as the party-operated university, Chung Shan University, used no English except on the English section of its entrance examination even before the unification of China.

Nevertheless. the role Christian colleges and their English-medium curriculum was so great during this period that he alumni of the Christian colleges came to include much of the elite professional and commercial class of this period (for a partial list of prominent Christian college alumni, see Lutz 1971: 500-502, particularly note 12). So important did English become that it has been referred to as the second language of China’s Republican elite class (X. Wang 1992). In fact, foreign diplomats sent to Republican China from Russia came to be chosen as much for their knowledge of English as for their diplomatic skills (Jordan 1976).

By 1949, however, the KMT government of the Republic had come under bitter attack from the Red Army of the Communist Party of China. Defeated and without sufficient support, they were forced to flee to Taiwan.


Following 1945 retrocession of Taiwan to the KMT government of the Republic of China, the people of Taiwan were excited about the opportunity of once again living as Chinese people (Peng 1972: Chou 1991). Taiwan had been ruled under Japanese colonial control for 50 years, and as a result, the most widely spoken languages in Taiwan had come to be Japanese and local Chinese dialects. Virtually no Mandarin or English was spoken there. In 1946, the KMT established the Taiwan Provincial Committee for the Propagation and Promotion of the National Language with a set of working guidelines for the fostering of the Chinese language. These guidelines included the recovery of the Taiwanese dialect to facilitate the learning of Mandarin by comparison between it and Taiwanese (Chen 2001: Tsao 2000). KMT control disintegrated into violent fighting which was used as an excuse for massive expansion of state control over Taiwanese language and culture (Lai, Myers, & Wei 1991). In 1948, the Taiwanese language was declared “inadequate for academic and cultural communication”. By 1956, Mandarin had become the only legal language of communication for schooling and other aspects of life. Universities and colleges which, during the early Republican Period, had had great autonomy in curriculum and entrance requirements began to loose control over their operation.

During this period, it became increasingly hard for students to obtain instruction in communicative English skills. In addition to restrictions on curriculum and selection of students, the potential number of teachers was limited by strict regulations concerning travel to and from Taiwan. The study of communicative skills was further damaged in 1954 with the introduction of the Joint College Entrance Examination (Yuan 1997). This nation-wide examination for high school graduates was used to select and place students in post-secondary institutions. It contained a lengthy section questioning knowledge of English, but like similar tests used in other parts of Asia, its content addressed knowledge of English grammar, rather than communicative competence. As a result, the study of English in the ROC became equivalent to the study of grammar.

Christian colleges attempted to reestablish themselves in Taiwan. The Catholic University of Beijing (later Fu Ren University), Soochow University, and Tunghai University all attempted to rebuild campuses in Taiwan. All of these schools were eventually incorporated into the homogeneous national university system, and as a result, their effective foreign language programs were eliminated.


By the 1980’s, enormous export-led economic growth had made possible for individual citizens consumer goals that the government could not satisfy. Growth in export industries was fueling a demand for employees with skills in foreign languages, particularly English. Combined with this growing demand for foreign language skills, the 1987 lifting of martial law gave citizens the freedom to pursue individual educational goals lacking in state-sponsored institutions.

Designed by the KMT government to propagate Mandarin, the public school system needed significant reform to handle this shift. These changes have begun only slowly. In 1993, changes in freshman English programs gave greater autonomy to universities and instructors (Huang 1997, 1998). Beginning in 2000, and depending on where one lives, communicative English classes have been introduced into elementary schools throughout Taiwan (Craig 1998). In addition, English classes have been made available for public and private workers whose jobs could bring them into contact with foreign tourists and residents (Lin 2001: “Cops learn English” 2000: Pasek 2001).

These changes seem to have had only marginal impact on the English ability of most Taiwanese. Scores on internationally recognized standardized tests, such as the TOEFL have continued to lag far behind other Asian nations (“Taiwan’s TOEFL scores” 2000). Subjective evaluations from the reports of foreign businessmen operating in Taiwan reflect this problem. A 1999 survey of members of the American Chamber of Commerce found 27% of respondents reporting “lack of English language proficiency” as an “obstacle to doing business”. (American Chamber of Commerce 2000). In addition, the more recent reforms have received severe criticism from education experts (S. E. Chang 2001: V. Wang 2000: Lee 2002) and local critics (Kennedy 2001).

The inability of the state to meet these demands has promoted private sources of education to arise. The lifting of martial law in July of 1987 resulted in the creation of large numbers of private companies specializing in English education. Many of these companies employ untrained ‘foreign teachers’ as instructors. The numbers involved in this form of education have grown to be huge. Informal sources estimate the number of students enrolled in such schools at 450,000 (Wachob 1995). The number of foreign teachers instructing in this system also appears to be enormous. As early as 1993, the local newspapers (“Illegal Americans” 1993) were reporting National Police Agency statistics that almost 2,000 Americans had overstayed their visa and were probably illegally working as English instructors. More current estimates from the Taiwan press (Quartly 2000) place the number of illegal instructors in the ROC’s English kindergartens at 8,000. If one considers the number who are teaching legally and in schools other than kindergartens, the total number must be very large. Sommers (2001) estimates that at least 100,000 foreign teachers have taught English in Taiwan since 1990. One unpublished survey found that more than 60% of students enrolled in an MBA had been taught by foreign instructors at such private schools (Sommers, 2002).


Private instruction in effective English skills was established in China long before the modern state system. This instruction has been widespread, influential, and effective. While government control over language policy temporarily stopped effective English teaching, the lifting of martial law created new opportunities for private language education, and once again, private instruction has come to play a major role in effective language education.

One implication for recognizing the role of private education is its impact on our understanding of the spread of English in the ROC. The existing histories of the spread of English in the ROC begin with the founding of the state in 1911 and reflect the place of English in national language policy (Chen 2001: Stowe 1990: Tsao 2000: Pride and Liu 1988: Sedlak 1976: Tse 1987). Tse (1987), Tsao (2000), and Chen (2001), situate the spread of English in the larger scope of state-controlled language planning. As a result, the spread and development of English in the ROC have come to be included among discussions of the standardization of Chinese pronunciation, the Romanization of Chinese script, and local language development. This work leaves the impression that English in the ROC emerged from state schooling and language policy. The recognition that private education has had a long-lasting and influential role in the language education of the region raises the possibility that our understanding of the issue is incomplete. A reconsideration of the impact of private education on the ROC, its language policy, and its educational history may be necessary to give a more complete description to the history of the spread of English in the ROC.


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